RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's governor told law students in New York last month that Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong broke a promise when he ran for a full term after being appointed to fill a vacancy.
"I almost un-appointed him when he decided to run," Gov. Mike Easley said in a speech January 22 to students at New York University, The News & Observer reported Saturday.
"I rate that as probably the poorest appointment that I've," the governor trailed off before adding "I've made some good ones."
The News & Observer obtained a recording of the speech from the university's spokesman.
Easley went to New York to speak about public service. He spent much of his time before the students talking about his political career. He and discussed Nifong after an audience member asked him about the sexual assault case in which three former Duke University lacrosse players were charged.
Easley, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, said Nifong had done a poor job, adding, "You don't need me to tell you that."
Nifong didn't return telephone messages and one of his lawyers, David Freedman, declined comment. The governor's office refused to allow interviews with Easley, the newspaper said.
Nifong handed the case to the state Attorney General Roy Cooper last month after he was charged with ethics violations by the State Bar. The bar charged Nifong with violating rules by making statements early in the case and of withholding DNA evidence and not telling the truth about it.
Former prosecutor Dan Boyce said Easley's comments were "very unusual" but not inappropriate. Boyce said the most interesting part of the statement would be that it could prompt the State Bar to call Easley as a witness for its case. Easley's statements prompt new questions about Nifong's motivation in regards to the Duke case.
"What the State Bar could look to is the real motivations that Mr. Nifong had in making the public statements," Boyce said. "Was he doing it for his own personal or political gain, or was he doing it for his own financial gain?"
Easley appointed Nifong as the Durham prosecutor in April 2005 after naming then-DA Jim Hardin to a judgeship. Easley said Nifong, one of Hardin's assistant, said he wouldn't run for the office.
A woman hired to dance at a Duke lacrosse team party told police March 14 she was raped and beaten. Rape charges have been dropped, but three men still face sexual offense and kidnapping charges.
The accused players - David Evans, 23, of Bethesda, Maryland; Collin Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, New York, and Reade Seligmann, 20, of Essex Fells, New Jersey - say they are innocent.
The governor also was critical of Nifong's early statements, in which he told national news media that the case involved a racially motivated assault by lacrosse players.
"That's how all this mess got started," Easley said. "He challenged the defense lawyers by talking about the case, calling the kids 'hooligans.' "
"You can't comment on that except in the courtroom, and when you do, then the defense lawyers have to stand up for their client. Then it's on. All the rules are out the window, then you have chaos, and that's why those rules are so important and that's what you got in this case. It's chaotic. It looks bad for North Carolina. It looks bad for the DA's office. It looks bad for the criminal justice system in general."
Easley said 2004 state law requires disclosure of all evidence in such cases.